The Funny Thing About Hate Speech. Plus, a Revisitation

Readers may note I started this blog on the first day of the year, to have a place to park stray stuff and share the work of others and also, maybe, to rekindle the community a lot of us blogging in LA had in the early aughts. I kept it up until March 20, when everything in my family’s world was in jeopardy, I more than once pictured myself flying down a mountain on a sled, digging my heels in the snow to keep from skidding off the cliff. Thinking about it now, a blog might have been a good place to air out the pile-ons by the press, the trips to the chemo ward, the recently departed employee (or someone using her name and password) trying to hack into my husband’s bank accounts, the heartbreak of my daughter losing her father. But I didn’t write about it here, and something I read this morning from Michael Shermer sums up why:

“If one part or sub-system fails, it can be catastrophic to all others. And so such systems must be run in a way that allows maximum attention to be devoted to problems and threats, while everything else is pushed to the background.”

Maximum attention was devoted. We have, I imagine to the frustration of those who launched the campaign against my husband and me (one hopes they’re now devoting their time to creation rather than destruction), come out the other side. I keep reading on the Twitter machine that people are ready for 2019 to be in the rearview, and I might think that, too, but for the unexpected upsides of crises rerouting your life.

Some of those upsides came together Tuesday night at Lou Perez’s “The Funny Thing About Hate Speech Tour,” which included a screening of “5 Reasons Why We Need Hate Speech.”

At the end of the crackerjack 15-minute doc, which lays out why banning hate-speech is always a bad idea and often destined to achieve the opposite of its proponents’ stated aims, Perez was joined onstage by Katie Herzog, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying. Each is a tireless proponent of inquiry, and as such has been deemed dangerous and ergo, should be robbed of their platforms, set upon with baseball bats, go into exile and etcetera. None have; they keep writing and talking through the death threats, the public shamings, the loss of friends, the ends-justify-the-means attacks that come with not backing down from the mob and their agenda, be it political or personal or as Bret, an evolutionary biologist, explained from the stage, people are terrified to be alienated from what they believe to be their chosen tribe. I paraphrase but: if 10,000 years ago you went against what the majority your tribe was doing, it meant starvation, it meant death.

Bret also said, at a dinner with my husband and me last month, that there are people, maybe 10%, that will not go along with the unfounded persecution of others. Over steak and red wine, we called them “the anti-Milgramists,” those who will not administer the shock, who daily press for discussion in the face of the loud and vocal minority, mostly these days in academia and the press, who seek to ban anything they consider “hate speech” (how lazy, how convenient), sometimes via the now-tiresome cycle we know as cancel culture.

Tiresome, if worth understanding. Those who’ve been in the barrel perhaps especially cannot stop examining the reasons why others seek to cancel, and when asked during the Q & A whether she was tired of writing about cancellation, Katie said she was not; that it’s what she wants to talk about. Me, too. It’s one way to push back the walls, to get through this cancel-crazed period and to a place where people are more inclined to engage with the ideas of others rather than, to put it crudely, seeing their enemies dead.

What I find astonishing about those who see enemies everywhere is the disinclination to look into what they are seeking to destroy. I might write, “why so scared?” except that I understand why, and as I’ve written before, the box they hold containing their platform (and your perceived transgressions) has a soggy bottom, throw in one piece of data or curiosity and the bottom blows out. This is why they will not have a direct conversation with you; why they’d rather have you by-committee shoved off the stage, and as Heather said, “it’s always a power-grab.”

I wondered after the event about a facet of cancelation I rarely see unpacked, the campaigns that claim to be fighting the good fight but in fact are started from spite. Anyone who’s studied history (or been in 7th grade, or gone through a divorce) knows that sometimes people shade the truth to get their way, how easily the cloaks of justice can be slipped over the body of vengeance. Katie and I talked about how certain people find the figurehead persona irresistible, and then went on to talk about my new apartment in NYC, which has a big couch for visitors, because sometimes yeah.

Last week, I visited Jonathan Rauch in DC, which was an honor and a thrill, his Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought meaning more to me than any book I’ve read in the past few years. We talked about many things but mostly about cancel culture, something he is in equal parts fascinated and disturbed by. At the end of our chat he wondered if there were a resource where people who find themselves cancelled can turn? Meaning, for support, for information, to understand you are not alone and that you will get through this. I told him how Bari Weiss was the first person to text me (as I sat on the chemo ward) when my world blew up, asking, “What can I do?” That Heather was the first to reach out and figuratively and literally hold my hand. That Katie was the first to write a fair summation of events. So yeah, there is a place, and there are people, and we are not going anywhere.

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